The mood was festive at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Thursday afternoon as a crowd waited for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to speak.
People talked and laughed in the late-afternoon heat as dragonflies flew overhead and “Rockin’ in the Free World” played over the speakers. They wore shirts that read “Bernie 2020” and “From a Moment to a Movement.” When Sanders took the stage, they waved signs, cheered and chanted his name.
More than 2,000 people packed into Bell Tower Amphitheatre for the rally hosted by UNC Young Democrats. After a series of opening speakers, Sanders addressed subjects from health care to climate change to President Donald Trump.
He wasted no time in repeating his trademark call for a “political revolution” and took aim at the richest Americans for their influence over the economy and political system.
“The 1% is extraordinarily powerful,” Sanders said. “They have unlimited amounts of money. They control the political system because we have billionaires now who can spend unlimited sums of money… to elect candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful. They have incredible power over the economy.”
However, he added that a united effort could combat this influence.
“At the end of the day, 1% is 1%,” he said. “And if we stand together… we will be able to make huge accomplishments and transform this country.”
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Sanders trod familiar ground in his speech, outlining the progressive policy positions that have made him one of the frontrunners for the Democratic party nomination for president. He called for climate action and free tuition at public colleges and universities, referencing New Mexico’s Sept. 18 announcement that it would eliminate tuition at public colleges for residents of the state.
He also called for “comprehensive immigration reform,” including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the end of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and the restoration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
In 2017, the Trump administration stopped the expansion of DACA and later declared it would end the program, initiating a number of legal challenges. The future of the program has remained mired in the courts ever since.
“Trump and his friends are trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin or where we were born,” Sanders said. “We are gonna bring people together, not divide them up.”
Health care has been a divisive issue on the 2020 campaign trail. In the most recent Democratic debate, former Vice President Joe Biden attacked Sanders’ plan for a Medicare for All health care system, which would replace private health insurance with government plans.
Sanders restated his support for Medicare for All, arguing that “in a civilized, democratic society families should not go bankrupt because somebody became seriously ill.”
“The function of health care is to provide quality care to all, not make billions of dollars in profits for large corporations,” he said.
The message resonated with Nicholas Brownstein, a 22-year-old UNC student who attended the rally. Brownstein said that Sanders’s support for Medicare for All was the primary reason he supported the candidate.
“I think he’s the only candidate running who is really pushing that, primarily,” Brownstein said.
Laura Doherty, a teacher and Chapel Hill resident, said that she and her husband Tim were longtime supporters of Sanders, and that Tim saw Sanders speak in 1992.
“He’s a very honest person,” Doherty said of Sanders, claiming that his views have not changed since 1992. She listed the environment and health care as the most important reasons that she and her husband support him.
Opening speakers included Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and former Ohio Sen. Nina Turner, a co-chair of Sanders’ campaign.
In her remarks, Turner decried the state of economic and racial justice in America.
“There is something wrong when a few families have all the wealth and the rest of us have little or nothing,” Turner said. “It is something wrong when bigotry and racism and white supremacy and sexism and xenophobia and all of the anti-humanitarian things have cropped up in this nation.”
“And it’s not just the bigot in the White House,” Turner said.
Trump has been criticized for racist rhetoric, including a series of tweets in which he told four freshman Congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from.
Sanders also took aim at Trump in his remarks, calling him “authoritarian” and “the most dangerous president in the history of this county.”
“Intellectually and emotionally, Trump is not fit to be president of the United States,” Sanders said.
Still Sanders ended his speech on a hopeful note.
“Don’t respond with depression. Don’t respond in despair. Respond by standing up and fighting back,” Sanders said.
After the event, UNC student Emma Gerden said she found Sanders’ remarks “inspiring.”
“As young people and as students, especially living in this political climate, the issues going on in the White House affect us a lot,” she said. “So I think he just brought up a lot of really good points that we can relate to.”
She said she thinks that Sanders has her vote.